In the grip of geopolitics – mixed outcomes at the UN Environment Assembly 

The UN Environment Assembly (UNEA) is where the international agenda is set to tackle global environmental issues. While looking for solutions to the triple planetary crisis, UNEA-6 felt the grip of geopolitics. Several essential draft resolutions, including an EU initiative to move towards a circular economy globally and Sri Lanka’s advance for climate justice, ended with no agreement. However, common ground established around the environmental impacts of conflicts, highly hazardous pesticide and chemical management, water resilience and land degradation provided rays of hope that environmental multilateralism can deliver.

The world’s highest environmental decision-making body gathered between February 26 and March 1 at the UN Environment headquarters in Nairobi, Kenya. 190 nations with 170 ministers were joined by international organisations, civil society, scientists and business representatives—more than 6,000 delegates—to negotiate “effective, inclusive and sustainable multilateral actions to tackle climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution”—the promising UNEA-6 theme.

After a week of negotiations before the assembly, the Open-Ended Committee of Permanent Representatives (OECPR) was ready for adoption with only one resolution on circularity in sugar cane production. Many other drafts had not even made it through a first full reading, with various states trying to block progress or water down language, including the very basics such as gender equality and the rights of Indigenous Peoples. At the closing of the OECPR, I could share civil society’s concerns on behalf of all Major Groups in our closing statement calling on member states to take urgent action.

minister Zakia Khattabi discussing UNEA6 progress and failures with civil society.

After slow progress during the OECPR, the UNEA week continued with a marathon of negotiations well into every night. When the UNEA President, Leila Benali from Morocco, finally put the gavel down at the end of the week, the assembly adopted 15 resolutions, two decisions, and a Ministerial Declaration.  

So, what are the successes and failures of a UNEA held at a time when science clearly shows that urgent action is needed? 

Responsible mining and sustainable resource use 

Raw materials are the centre of attention these days, and UNEA-6 is no exception. At a dedicated side event, the European Environmental Bureau (EEB) and its partners, Earthworks and the Heinrich Boell Foundation, stressed the need for responsible mining and sustainable resource use.

Countries and companies are grappling with lithium, cobalt, copper, and other critical materials that are needed for the transition. A draft resolution spearheaded by Switzerland highlighted the central role of metal and mineral management in achieving the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development Goals, the Paris Agreement , and the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework. It underscored the critical nexus between the escalating demand for metals and minerals and key global trends such as the energy transition, digital transformation, urbanisation, and militarisation. These technologies are driving a surge in resource demand, which, if not done right, will likely come at the cost of sustainable development goals. The resolution’s goal was to create an Open-Ended Working Group, which would be a place for government experts and observers from civil society to come up with suggestions on the best circular practices and ways to keep the extractive industry in line with current social and environmental laws.

In the negotiations, Switzerland and its supporters faced fierce resistance, not the least from several countries with a significant mining sector. The resolution finally adopted does not mandate the establishment of an Open-Ended Working Group or a similar process but tasked UNEP with creating an online repository regarding the environmental impact of metals and mineral extraction.

Important language on the rights of Indigenous Peoples, whose traditional territories hold a major share of critical materials, was deleted. At least, a reference to the human right to a healthy environment could be saved. The agreement reached is far from what is needed: a system of global governance of resources that works towards a reduction of extraction and uptake of secondary materials ensures equitable access to resources, defines no-go zones for mining, sets strict environmental standards, and ensures the respect of human rights, in particular Free Prior and Informed Consent from Indigenous Peoples.  

“Demands for minerals and metals are huge, and their extraction and processing will increase immensely. This comes with a huge risk to human rights and the environment. Consequently, we need multilateral cooperation in this field to decrease the impact. The draft resolution included some important elements for this. The final result is sobering, yet it shows that the work of UNEP in this field has to be continued,” said Johanna Sydow, Head of the International Environmental Policy Division at the Heinrich Böll Foundation.

Zero pollution planet 

Civil society came to UNEA-6 with serious concerns: children are exposed to a cocktail of hazardous chemicals, including forever chemicals (such as PFAS), endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs), reprotoxic, and neurotoxic and carcinogenic chemicals, before they are even born. Also, pesticides that kill pollinators and all-pervasive microplastics threaten the entire ecosystem. And yet, global chemical regulation is still in its infancy.

The adoption of a resolution on Highly Hazardous Pesticides was deemed “a historic move for safer food and farming” by campaigners, with its call for action to eliminate the use of the world’s most toxic pesticides globally by 2023.

Sarojeni Rengam of PAN Asia Pacific commented, “I believe that this UNEA-6 resolution is necessary to advance stronger national and multilateral actions to phase out highly hazardous pesticides.  Pesticides acutely poison 385 million women, men, farmers, and farmworkers each year, with the majority of these poisonings occurring in the Global South, where the majority of farmers are unaware of the effects of pesticides on their health and the environment. She added, “It would require financial and technical support for HHPs to be replaced by agroecology. And these alternatives should be made available to small farmers and rural people transitioning to agroecology.”

A resolution on sound management of chemicals and waste, put forward by Switzerland, is meant to strengthen the Global Framework on Chemicals, adopted in 2023, by tasking the UN Environment Programme to give it support, by calling for additional resources, and by asking the UN General Assembly later this year to acknowledge the new instrument fully. A resolution on air pollution is asking the UN Environment Programme to set up a global cooperation network on air quality.

UNEA-6 did not achieve progress towards information sharing about materials and products throughout the life cycle. Civil society is pushing for a globally harmonised cross-sectorial chemical transparency and traceability system. At the same time, civil society will continue to voice its concerns around the new Science-Policy Panel on Chemicals, Waste and Pollution Prevention, which was agreed upon at UNEA 5, which risks being under the influence of representatives of the chemical industry rather than becoming a neutral scientific body.  

Conflict and environment 

UNEA-6 took place at a time when the devastating impact of wars and armed conflicts was just too obvious: immense human suffering, but also conflict-pollution hotspots, the loss of valuable natural areas, biodiversity and farming land—all of which set back whole countries and regions on their path to long-term sustainability. Ukraine tabled a draft resolution on environmental assistance and recovery in areas affected by armed conflict. As expected, it saw strong pushback from the usual suspects; however, the proponents were able to find support and get a resolution adopted, a crucial deliverable for UNEA-6.

“We were disappointed that the original strong language on accountability for conflict-linked environmental damage was lost in the course of intense negotiations,” said Christina Parandii, an expert with PAX, “but the resolution opens the way for more effective environmental monitoring and remediation in conflict-affected areas and strengthens the role of UNEP in its work on environmental dimensions of conflicts. Now we are looking forward to its implementation, for which the involvement of civil society groups with expertise in monitoring the environmental impacts of armed conflicts would be crucial.”

Nature-based Solutions: the good and the bad

Nature-based Solutions (NbS) are on everyone’s lips. However, civil society organisations, Indigenous Peoples’ groups, and several governments from the Global South are concerned by current definitions of what counts as “Nature-based Solutions”. How can non-compliant projects be excluded? How can we avoid investing in bad practices that can be labelled as money going into nature-based solutions? Environmental groups have been warning that if NbS are not strictly defined, climate mitigation investments may result in no net benefits for the environment, and poorly monitored NbS projects can cause more harm than good, for instance, where monocultural tree plantations are labelled as ‘forests’ and ‘Nature-based Solutions’. Ever since the topics made it to the agenda for UNEA 5, critical views have been sidelined and hardly taken up in reports. UNEA 6 was no different: while some member states supported the draft, and civil society called for a working group, including civil society experts, to define stronger criteria for NbS, the deadlock between negotiators could not be resolved, and the draft resolution was withdrawn.

Solar Radiation Modification – dystopian climate ‘solutions’ 

Solar radiation modification (SRM), or solar radiation manipulation or geoengineering approaches, is a set of technological fixes intended to manipulate the amount of sunlight that reaches the Earth’s atmosphere. Among solar geoengineering technologies are Stratospheric Aerosol Injection (SAI), which involves the release of chemicals and particles through balloons or aeroplanes into the stratosphere with the aim of limiting sunlight coming to the earth, and Marine Cloud Brightening (MCB), which involves adding salt particles into clouds to make them whiter to reflect solar rays.

SAI, if applied, would pose a great risk: stratospheric injections would have to be continued for hundreds and thousands of years into the future, and stopping them would trigger a so-called ‘termination shock’ where the temperature would suddenly rise with the potential to destroy or at least severely damage life on earth. According to the Advisory Committee to the UN Human Rights Council, solar geoengineering technologies are some of the most extreme and existentially threatening technologies ever conceived and were declared incompatible with human rights. Environmental organisations argue they are a dangerous distraction from the urgent task of solving the triple planetary crisis.

The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) has been addressing the risks of geoengineering since 2008, applying the Precautionary Principle in view of the risks to biodiversity posed by ‘climate-fixes’ such as ocean fertilisation and all climate-related geoengineering. This led to the adoption of a de facto moratorium in 2010. The London Convention and Protocol adopted a series of decisions that called for the utmost precaution, led to a ban on ocean fertilisation, and more recently, called governments for extreme caution on four other marine geoengineering techniques (enhancing ocean alkalinity, macroalgae cultivation and other biomass for sequestration, including artificial upwelling; marine cloud brightening; and microbubbles, reflective particles and material) because of their “potential for deleterious effects that are widespread, long-lasting or severe.” All UN member states agreed on the grave risks of flooding, droughts and threats to biodiversity from these technologies. 

At UNEA-6, Switzerland submitted a draft resolution on Solar Radiation Modification. Civil society strongly supported the African Minister’s joint call for a non-use agreement on solar geoengineering, which is already supported by hundreds of experts and academics.  

“The vocal opposition to geoengineering at UNEA-6 sends a powerful message, underscoring a broad commitment to upholding established norms of international environmental law. Solar Radiation Modification (SRM) technologies are dangerous and do not have any role to play in our common future. These technologies cannot tackle the root causes of the climate crisis and would instead enable major polluters to delay the urgent need to phase out fossil fuels,” said Mary Church, an SRM expert with the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL). “Actions by the U.S., Saudi Arabia, and Japan at UNEA-6 highlighted a highly problematic approach to global environmental challenges: trying to welcome geoengineering advocates and undermining existing UN governance structures. These attempts to legitimise SRM technologies were met with strong resistance, with the Pacific Island States, Colombia, Mexico, and the EU supporting the African Group’s leadership against attempts to normalize these unproven technologies. The failure of these attempts indicates a growing consensus on the risks associated with solar geoengineering, and growing support for an international SRM Non-Use mechanism, as demonstrated by decisions of the African Ministerial Conference on the Environment and the European Parliament,” Mary summarised after the draft resolution was withdrawn.

What else? 

UNEA is not only about negotiations but also a vibrant and colourful flurry of events. The EEB, together with its members Women Engage for A Common Future and Journalists for Human Rights organised the two-day 20th Global Major Groups and Stakeholders Forum. The main get-together for civil society at UNEA delivered the Joint Global Statement, bringing together the voices of environmentalists worldwide and ensuring civil society engaged with top decision-makers and learned from each other.

In the end… 

It was expected that UNEA-6 would land a big hit under current conditions. After UNEA 5.2 in March 2022 decided to launch negotiations for a legally binding treaty to end plastic pollution, UNEA 6 was doomed to be an anti-climax to the enthusiasm felt two years ago. This year, it was frustrating to see already-agreed language being watered down and important resolutions to die a silent death. In several resolutions, civil society had to focus on preventing harm rather than advocating for strong outcomes. However, hard work by dedicated governments and delegates and tailwind from environmental campaigners and civil society experts did result in tangible outcomes that gave us, the UN Environment Programme, and the world’s environmental leaders in governments a mandate and a reason to keep up the good fight and set new action in motion. 

For a detailed report on UNEA-6 please consult IISD’s Earth Negotiation Bulletin